Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time.
A hidden gem in the age of TikTok sounds like an exaggeration, but Minato in Smyrna might be the closest thing. Located off of Spring Road about a half mile from Truist Park, this sushi restaurant resides on the basement level of a strip mall with scant signage. Minato doesn’t face the street, instead, it’s around the back next to the Golf Depot. The Japanese character for Minato affixed to a stone facade reveals the entrance. Minato’s not on Facebook or Instagram, and it doesn’t have its own website. Diners typically find out about the speakeasy-like, windowless restaurant through word-of-mouth.
Minato means “harbor” in Japanese, and it turns out to be a very fitting name for a restaurant that’s drawn in regulars for 33 years. “It means we carry the most fresh fish for the customers, and the customers feel they’re at home, too,” explains Pat Lee, one of Minato’s owners. The restaurant is also owned by Phillip Saetia, Kevin Chang, and Ming Chen.
Lee and her three co-owners worked at a sushi restaurant in Norcross when the opportunity to take over the Smyrna locale presented itself. They visited the space, which was already a sushi restaurant, and fell in love with it.
Besides the name change, Lee and her co-owners didn’t do much with the space. The eclectic decor that hearkens to the late ‘80s adds to the restaurant’s charm. Diners walk past a stone wall with figurines tucked into the crevices, while a pond with a dolphin sculpture anchors the sunken dining room. Wave cutouts in the wood panels behind the sushi bar, along with coastal tchotchkes like sea turtles and starfish, show off a nautical theme. Endearingly, family portraits and Christmas cards from diners plaster the entrance’s hallway. Some have dined at Minato for 33 years, says Lee. Many are grandparents now, and those younger generations are regulars, too.
Come for the kitsch and stay for the sushi. Minato works with five different fish suppliers, says Lee, so it’s always fresh. The “Super Crunch” roll is a crowd favorite among the 15 signature roll options, and a menu stalwart since the restaurant opened. Crispy shrimp tempura and a tempura cracker pack the inside, while raw tuna and salmon are draped around the exterior, along with a hearty drizzle of eel sauce. “When you eat it, it’s just a very nice, crunchy texture and good flavor in there. This is our most popular roll,” says Lee.
The restaurant does a pretty mean lunch business — though it was steadier before the pandemic, when people went to the office every day, says Lee —and it’s not unusual to see about eight chirashi bowls lining the sushi bar as the chefs prepare them for large groups. Slab-like pieces of fish, including salmon, shrimp, and tuna, are artfully arranged atop sticky rice along with crunchy crab salad and tomago (egg omelette). Stephanie Gerdes, an Atlanta resident and Minato regular since 2009, particularly enjoys this dish. “It’s got the sticky rice and then all the delicious fish and the little magic egg triangle,” she says. At about $20 per bowl, including a miso soup and green salad, “it’s seriously the best deal for lunch,” Gerdes adds.
Lee also takes pride in the restaurant’s Japanese dishes, including don buri (rice bowls), udon and soba noodles, and teriyaki dishes. Other restaurants might use commercial teriyaki sauce, she says, but Minato’s chefs “use all natural ingredients to cook for three hours” and make their own sauce. The sweet and tangy teriyaki pairs with several protein choices, including chicken, beef, and scallops.
Off-menu items add to the restaurant’s mystique. The best known of the bunch may be the “Cowboy Hat:” a shrimp cracker topped with crunchy crab salad, adorned with a single deep-fried scallop, and a generous amount of eel sauce. It was Kevin Chang, one of the owners and sushi chefs, who created the treat after experimenting with the ingredients. He shared the 10-gallon hat doppelgänger with regulars and it was an instant hit. “The shrimp cracker is a nice flavor with the crab salad together,” says Lee. “It’s not too heavy too. It’s very light, fluffy, crunchy.”
The food isn’t the only thing that’s kept Minato open or three decades through downturns (and a pandemic). “I feel like it’s Cheers for sushi,” says Gerdes. Sit at the sushi bar during lunch and dinner services, and you’re likely to see the owners greeting regulars by name. “It’s got a family feel,” she adds. “Every time I go in, you end up talking to somebody else sitting around you.”
Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
2697 Spring Rd SE A, Smyrna.